History Wars World War II

Why Walter Cronkite and 7 other journalists attended aerial gunnery school

To give war correspondents a first-hand look at the air war, the U.S. Army Air Forces' 8th Air Force permitted eight journalists to fly bomber missions over Germany in 1943. Walter Cronkite was one of them.
Miguel Ortiz Avatar
(U.S. Army Air Forces)

During WWII, American war correspondents sent news from the frontlines back home to the states. These journalists were often right there with the troops, slogging through mud and ducking enemy fire to provide accurate reports. However, covering the air war proved to be even more of a challenge, though not a physical one. Based out of London, journalists could only meet returning airmen after their missions to record their stories.

To give war correspondents a first-hand look at the air war, the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 8th Air Force permitted eight journalists to fly bomber missions over Germany in 1943. However, these men would not just be passengers along for the ride. If things got dicey in the air, as they often did, the reporters were expected to help defend their planes; they were sent to aerial gunnery school.

Cronkite with the crew of a B-26 Marauder assigned to the 323rd Bomb Group (American Air Museum in Britain)

In the same way that every sailor aboard a ship is a firefighter, every crew member aboard a bomber was also a gunner. The radio operator, navigator, bombardier and flight engineer all doubled as gunners when not performing their primary duties. Even the pilots could be swapped out from behind the controls and placed behind a gun if a squadron or group commander chose to fly a mission.

The eight journalists selected to fly over Germany were christened “The Writing 69th” by 8th Air Force public relations officers, as a play-on-words of “The Fighting 69th” Infantry Regiment from WWI. They were also called “The Flying Typewriters” but referred to themselves as the “Legion of the Doomed.” These men were Paul Manning for CBS Radio, Robert Post for The New York Times, Walter Cronkite for United Press, Andy Rooney for Stars and Stripes, Denton Scott for Yank, the Army Weekly, Homer Bigart for the New York Herald Tribune, William Wade for the International News Service, and Gladden Hill for the Associated Press.

Scott flew a later mission over France (American Air Museum in Britain)

In just one week, the eight journalists underwent intense training, including high-altitude survival, parachuting, and enemy aircraft identification. Of course, a critical aspect of their training was aerial gunnery, which included skeet shooting with shotguns and Thompson submachine guns to learn the concept of leading a moving target. At the end of the training, the reporters were given a written test; they all passed.

On February 26, 1943, The Writing 69th flew their first mission, the bombing of a Focke-Wulf fighter aircraft factory in Bremen, Germany. Post, Cronkite, Rooney, Bigart, Wade, and Hill boarded their respective B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator heavy bombers and took to the skies. However, cloud cover over Bremen diverted the raid to its secondary target, the German U-boat pens at Wilhelmshaven.

Post is the only member of The Writing 69th to be killed in action (American Air Museum in Britain)

While over Oldenburg, Germany, German fighters intercepted the American bombers. Many of the reporters, including Cronkite, reportedly manned machine guns and returned fire. Rooney’s B-17 was damaged by flak but made it back to England safely. Tragically, Post’s B-24 was shot down by enemy fighters and exploded mid-air. He, along with eight of the 10 crewmen, were killed. Post’s death effectively ended The Writing 69th. However, some of the reporters, including Scott and Manning, flew later missions during the war. Post’s body was later recovered; he is buried at the Ardennes American Cemetery alongside the airmen with whom he flew.